Influence of Rasputin - Vyrubova - My Tutorial Troubles - Pierre Gilliard - Thirteen Years at the Russian Court
WINTER OF 1913
While the illness of Aleksey Nicolaievich threw such a gloom over the Imperial family, and the influence of Rasputin, a product of their very distress, continued to grow, life at Tsarskoe-Selo seemed to flow along as smoothly as ever, at any rate to outward appearances.
Right; Aleksey on his mother's balcony at the Alexander Palace.
At that time I still knew very little about the staretz, and I was searching everywhere for material on which to base my judgement, for his personality interested me decidedly. But it was anything but easy. The children never mentioned Rasputin's name to me. and in My presence even avoided the slightest allusion his existence. I realised that in so doing they were acting on their mother's instructions. The Tsarina no doubt feared that as a foreigner and not orthodox I was incapable understanding the nature of the feelings of herself and her family towards the staretz, feelings which made them revere him a saint, By imposing this duty of silence on my pupils she allowed me to ignore Rasputin, or conveyed to me her desire I should behave as if I knew nothing about him. She thus deprived me of any chance of taking sides against a man whose very name I realised I did not know.
From another source I had been able to convince myself that Rasputin played a very insignificant part in the life of the Tsarevich. On several occasions Dr. Derevenko told me the amusing remarks Aleksey Nicolaievich had made about Rasputin in his presence. The latter tickled his young imagination and piqued his curiosity, but had no influence whatever with him.
As a result of Mlle. Tutcheva's protest, Rasputin no longer went up to the Grand-Duchesses' floor, and he visited the Tsarevich but seldom.
No doubt the authorities were afraid I might meet him, for the rooms I occupied were adjoining those of my pupil. As I had required his personal attendant to keep me informed of the smallest details of his life, Rasputin could not have seen him without my knowledge (It was thus that I learned that from January 1st, 1914, to the day of his death in December, 1916 Rasputin only saw Aleksey Nicolaievich three times).
The children saw Rasputin when he was with their parents, but even at that time his visits were infrequent. Weeks, and sometimes months, passed without his being summoned to Court. It became more and more usual to see him with Madame Vyrubova, who had a little house quite near to the Alexander Palace. The Tsar and his heir hardly ever went there, and meetings were always very rare.
As I have already explained, Madame Vyrubova was the intermediary between the Tsarina and Rasputin. It was she who sent on to the staretz letters addressed to him and brought his replies - usually verbal - to the palace.
Relations between Her Majesty and Madame Vyrubova were very intimate, and hardly a day passed without her visiting her Imperial mistress. The friendship had lasted many years. Madame Vyrubova had married very young. Her husband was a degenerate and an inveterate drunkard, and succeeded in inspiring his young wife with a deep hatred of him. They separated, and Madame Vyrubova endeavoured to find relief and consolation in religion. Her misfortunes were a link with the Tsarina, who had suffered so much herself, and yearned to comfort her. The young woman who had had to go through so much won her pity. She became the Tsarina's confidante, and the kindness the Tsarina showed her made her a lifelong slave.
Madame Vyrubova's temperament was sentimental and mystical, and her boundless affection for the Tsarina was a positive danger, because it was uncritical and divorced from all sense of reality.
The Tsarina could not resist so fiery and sincere a devotion. Imperious as she was, she wanted her friends to be hers, And hers alone. She only entertained friendships in which she was quite sure of being the dominating partner. Her confidence had to be rewarded by complete self-abandonment. She did not realise that it was rather unwise to encourage demonstrations of that fanatical loyalty.
Madame Vyrubova had the mind of a child, and her unhappy experiences had sharpened her sensibilities without maturing her judgment. Lacking in intellect and discrimination, she was the prey of her impulses. Her opinions on men And affairs were unconsidered but none the less sweeping. A single impression was enough to convince her limited and puerile understanding. She at once classified people, according to the impression they made upon her, as "good" or "bad," - in words, "friends" or "enemies."
It was with no eye to personal advantage, but out of a pure affection for the Imperial family and her desire to help them, that Madame Vyrubova tried to keep the Tsarina posted as to what was going on, to make her share her likes and dislikes, and through her to influence the course of affairs at Court. But in reality she was the docile and unconscious, but none the less mischievous, tool of a group of unscrupulous individuals who used her in their intrigues. She was incapable either of a political policy or considered aims, and could not even guess what was the game of those who used her in their own interests, Without any strength of will, she was absolutely under the influence. of Rasputin and had become his most fervent adherent at Court.
I had not seen the staretz since I had been at the palace, when one day I met him in the anteroom as I was preparing to go out. I had time to look well at him as he was taking off his cloak. He was very tall, his face was emaciated, and he had piercing grey-blue eyes under thick bushy eyebrows. His hair was long, and he had a long beard like a peasant. He was wearing a Russian smock of blue silk drawn in at the waist, baggy black trousers, and high boots.
This was our one and only meeting, but it left me with a very uncomfortable feeling. During the few moments in which our looks met I had a distinct impression that I was in the presence of a sinister and evil being.
The months slipped by, however, and I had the pleasure. of observing the progress made by my pupil. He had grown fond of me and was trying to respond to the trust I showed in him. I still had a hard struggle against his laziness, but the feeling that the amount of liberty permitted him depended entirely upon the use he made of it fired his zeal and strengthened his will.
It was fortunate that the winter had been a good one, and there had been no other serious relapse after that at Livadia.
Of course I knew quite well that this was only an interlude, but I noticed that Aleksey Nicolaievich was making a real effort to control his impulsive and turbulent nature, which had unfortunately caused serious accidents, and I began to wonder whether I should not find his illness, however terrible in other ways, an ally which would gradually compel the boy to become his own master and might refine his character.
It was all a great comfort to me, but I cherished no illusions as to the difficulties of my task. I had never realised so well before how his environment fought against my efforts. I had to struggle against the servile flattery of the servants and the silly adulations of some of the people around him. It always surprised me greatly that Aleksey Nicolaievich's simple nature had hitherto to a large extent resisted the attraction of the extravagant praise he received.
I remember one occasion when a deputation of peasants from one of the Goverments of Central Russia came to bring presents to the Tsarevich. The three men of which it was composed, on an order given by Derevenko in a low voice, dropped on their knees before Aleksey Nicolaievich to offer him what they had brought. I noticed that the boy was embarrassed and blushed violently, and when we were alone asked him whether he liked seeing people on their knees before him.
"Oh no, but Derevenko says it must be so!"
"That's absurd!" I replied. "Even the Tsar doesn't like people to kneel before him. Why don't you stop Derevenko insisting on it ?"
"I don't know. I dare not."
I took the matter up with Derevenko, and the boy was delighted to be freed from this irksome formality.
But a more serious element was his isolation and the circumstances under which his education was carried on. I realised that these were almost inevitable, and that the education of a prince tends to make him an incomplete being who finds himself outside life if only because he has not been subject to the common lot in his youth. Such teaching as he receives can only be artificial, tendentious, and dogmatic. It often has the absolute and uncompromising character of a catechism.
There are several reasons: the restricted choice of teachers, the fact that their liberty of expression is limited by the conventions of their official life and their regard for the exalted position of their pupil, and, finally, that they have to get through a vast programme in a very few years. It inevitably means that they have to resort to mere formulae. They proceed by assertion, and think less of rousing the spirit of enquiry and analysis and stimulating the faculty of comparison in their pupils than of avoiding everything which might awaken an untimely curiosity and a taste for unofficial lines of study.
Further, a child brought up in such conditions is deprived of something which plays a vital part in the formation of judgment. He is deprived of the knowledge which is acquired out of the schoolroom, knowledge such as comes from life itself, unhampered contact with other children, the diverse and sometimes conflicting influences of environment, direct observation and simple experience of men and affairs - in a word, everything which in the course of years develops the critical faculty and a sense of reality.
Under such circumstances an individual must be endowed with exceptional gifts to be able to see things as they are, think clearly, and desire the right things. He is cut off from life. He cannot imagine what is going on behind the wall on which false pictures are painted for his amusement or distraction.
All this made me very anxious, but I knew that it would not fall to my lot to remedy this serious state of affairs, so far as it could be remedied. There was a custom in the Russian Imperial family that when the Heir had reached the age of eleven he should be given a vospitatiet (educator), whose office was to direct the training and education of the young prince. The vospitatiet was usually a soldier, as the military career seemed the best qualification for this heavy and responsible duty. The post was usually given to a general, an ex-director of some military school. It was a highly coveted post in view of the powers and privileges it conferred, and particularly because of the influence the holder might get over the Heir, an influence which often continued during the early years of his reign.
The selection of the vospitatiet was thus a vital matter. The direction which Aleksey Nicolaievich's education would take depended upon him, and I awaited his appointment with considerable anxiety.